Ole Miss players hold up the national championship trophy after defeating Oklahoma 4-2 in Game 2 of the NCAA College World Series baseball finals, Sunday, June 26, 2022, in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/John Peterson)

OMAHA — Baseball hadn’t been invented back in early 18th century when Alexander Pope, an English poet and essayist, wrote the words: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” 

But 300 years ago, Pope could have been writing about this 2022 Ole Miss Rebels team, given up for dead seven weeks ago and now national champions. For these Rebels, it wasn’t just hope. It was belief.

Rick Cleveland

Mike Bianco’s Rebels, once 7-14 in their own league, defeated the Oklahoma Sooners 4-2 to sweep the best-of-three championship and win the College World Series on Sunday. One year after Mississippi State won the national championship here, the trophy stays in the Magnolia State.

These Rebels never quit hoping or believing – or working. Their hope sprang eternal.

“Life is tough and there’s bad things that happen to everybody,” Bianco said postgame. “… These guys have worked really hard and I think they’ve shown a lot of people that you can fall down, you can stumble and you can fail, but that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. If you continue to push and you continue to believe, as Tim (Elko) said, you can accomplish anything.”

The Rebels have realized college baseball’s ultimate goal. They are national champions. They have worked their way back from 22-17 on May 1 to a final record of 42-23, including a remarkable 10-1 run through the NCAA Tournament. The team that lost at home to Southeast Missouri 13-3 on April 19 claimed the national championship on June 26, beating the mighty Oklahoma Sooners, undefeated in the College World Series before they ran into Ole Miss. This was no easy road. Ole Miss, the last team to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, had to run the gauntlet as a low seed through Miami, then Hattiesburg, then here.

“These guys have lived that this season,” Bianco continued. “They really have. They’ve fallen down, where not a lot of people believed that they were any good anymore, and a lot of people may have been disappointed in them. And I get that. It’s sports, and that’s part of it. But they didn’t let that affect them. They continued to believe in one another. They continued to push.”

Here in Omaha, the Rebels have not lacked for support and encouragement. Probably 20,000 Ole Miss fans were present at Charles Schwab Field, often standing, screaming and waving towels at all the right moments. The crowd fed off the Rebels; the Rebels fed off the crowd. Afterward, players circled the field, high-fiving joyous fans. There were Ole Miss fans reaching over one another to reach over the fence in every section of the stadium. Nearly an hour after the game had ended, Ole Miss fans still stood and cheered.

“This group of young men, I think people have fallen in love with them, their story and where they came from,” Bianco continued. “I’m just very fortunate to have been a part of it and that these guys allowed me to be on the ride with them.”

Heroes were many for Ole Miss, including shortstop Jacob Gonzalez, who was responsible for three of his team’s six hits. He hit a solo home run for the game’s first run in the sixth and then knocked in a crucial, tying run with sharp single in the eighth.

There were so many others, mostly pitchers this day:

  • Freshman Hunter Elliott, who is 19 years old and pitches as if he is 29, started on the mound and pitched 6.2 innings of two-run, three-hit baseball. “He’s amazing,” Bianco would say. “… The bigger the stage, the better he gets. That’s what the great ones do. When the stage gets big, that’s when they shine. He’s one of those guys.”
  • Senior John Gaddis pitched the Rebels out of a seventh inning mess and gave his team 1.1 innings of nearly perfect pitching. And that set the stage for …
  • Closer Brandon Johnson, who went right at the Sooners and recorded three straight strikeouts on 14 pitches to save the victory in the ninth inning. “It was a dream come true,” Johnson said. “Ever since you’re a little kid, you dream of being on the mound in those situations. And when it happened, you just let go of yourself because you realize you did do it.”
  • Bianco deserves much credit, as well, and not only for keeping his teams spirits up during the bad times earlier in the season and making all the right strategy calls in the College World Series. There was this: Watching the replay of an apparently successful Oklahoma squeeze bunt in the sixth inning, Bianco noticed the bunter, John Spikerman, running well inside the runner’s lane down the first baseline. Unable to get the umpire’s attention from the dugout because of the crowd noise, Bianco ran out onto the field to ask for a review. Sure enough, Spikerman was ruled out and the runner who had scored, Jackson Nicklaus, was sent back to third base.  

“Thank God for the Jumbotron, huh,” Bianco said. “I just looked up and I went, my gosh, he’s out of the running lane.”

Instead of taking a 1-0 lead and having runners at first and third with just one out, the Sooners were still scoreless and there were two out, soon to be three. There’s another lesson there: To win a national championship you not have to be good, you have to have a little luck along the way.

There were still more Ole Miss heroes: TJ McCants got the three-run, eighth inning rally started with a ringing single to center, and ever-dependable Justin Bench then moved him all the way to third with a line-drive single to right field. Bench later scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch.

Of course, some of the loudest postgame cheers were for Elko, the captain and spiritual leader of these National Champions. 

Said Elko, “There’s just so much to be said about how much we overcame this year, how much we had to fight through, how much we had to pick each other up and never let ourselves get too down. This story of our season is going to be told for years and years and years to come.”

He’s right. This Ole Miss team can provide lessons for Little Leaguers everywhere: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. It may sound trite, but it rings true.

These Rebels, unsuccessful for the longest time this season, kept trying, kept believing and, in the end, got the job done.

Their hope sprang eternal. They stayed the course. They prevailed.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.